Early instances of misunderstandings of biblical proportions

old-style Hanzi for ?From time to time I come across references by the credulous to the supposed biblical roots of some Chinese characters. I was surprised to learn, however, that that manner of interpretation has been around for many years.

In his 1902 book China and the Chinese, Herbert A. Giles (of Wade-Giles fame) pointed out the flaw he had seen in some earlier work.

Even the early Jesuit Fathers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to whom we owe so much for pioneer work in the domain of Sinology, were not without occasional lapses of the kind, due no doubt to a laudable if excessive zeal. Finding the character ?, which is the common word for “a ship,” as indicated by ?, the earlier picture-character for “boat” seen on the left-hand side, one ingenious Father proceeded to analyse it as follows: —

? “ship,” ? “eight,” ? “mouth” = eight mouths on a ship—“the Ark.”

But the right-hand portion is merely the phonetic of the character; it was originally ? “lead,” which gave the sound required; then the indicator “boat” was substituted for “metal.”

So with the word ? “to prohibit.” Because it could be analysed into two ?? “trees” and ? “a divine proclamation,” an allusion was discovered therein to the two trees and the proclamation of the Garden of Eden; whereas again the proper analysis is into indicator and phonetic.

Nor is such misplaced ingenuity confined to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1892 a Protestant missionary published and circulated broadcast what he said was “evidence in favour of the Gospels,” being nothing less than a prophecy of Christ’s coming hidden in the Chinese character ? “to come.” He pointed out that this was composed of “a cross,” with two ?? ‘men,’ one on each side, and a ‘greater man’ ? in the middle.

That analysis is all very well for the character as it stands now; but before the Christian era this same character was written and was a picture, not of men and of a cross, but of a sheaf of corn. It came to mean “come,” says the Chinese etymologist, “because corn comes from heaven.”

Even if all the character etymologies Giles cites are not necessarily in keeping with modern scholarship, his principles here are correct.

Gift ideas for Mandarin learners

Here are some books I recommend. You may still have time to buy some of these for others (or persuade others to buy for you) before Christmas.

In a departure from my usual practice, all of the images below are linked to Amazon — in part to make things easier for most readers of this site but also because I’m a bit curious to see if the potential kickbacks from that site would ever add up to enough to buy myself some books I’ve been wanting. Mainly, though, I’d like to see these books make it into the hands of more readers. This isn’t meant to be a complete list; but it’s a good start.

One of these days I’ll post about the works below I haven’t written about previously.


ABC English-Chinese, Chinese-English Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis and Zhang Yanyin. This is the Mandarin-English/English-Mandarin dictionary that every student needs. Suitable for all ages and levels. It’s small enough to carry with you. And at US$20 or even less it’s a bargain too. For an e-edition, get Wenlin (see below). Description. Excerpt from Mandarin –> English half. Excerpt from English –> Mandarin half.
ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary, edited by John DeFrancis. The best large Mandarin-English dictionary. Entries are arranged alphabetically, by words, rather than head Chinese characters. Note: This is a Mandarin –> English dictionary and does not offer an English –> Mandarin section. For an e-edition (which does allow for the lookup of English words), get Wenlin (see below). Sample of what entries in this dictionary look like.
Chinese Biographies: Lang Lang, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of pianist Lang Lang, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
Chinese Biographies: Yao Ming, by Grace Wu. Pinyin-annotated biography of basketball star Yao Ming, with English notes. There’s also a helpful Web site with additional resources. Ideal for beginning and intermediate students.
The Besieged City (Abridged Chinese Classic Series), by Qian Zhongshu. Pinyin-annotated abridged version of a terrific Chinese novel. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Family (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Spring (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpt.
Autumn, (abridged and annotated edition, with full Hanyu Pinyin), by Ba Jin. With notes in English, proper word-parsed Hanyu Pinyin for the entire text, simplified Chinese characters, and a CD with MP3 files of the entire book being read aloud. Excerpts.
Basic Spoken Chinese: An Introduction to Speaking and Listening for Beginners, by Cornelius C. Kubler. Although this book is not in orthographically standard Pinyin, it’s nonetheless strong. A practical, real-world textbook that focuses on learning the language, not getting beginners bogged down memorizing character after character.
Fundamental Spoken Chinese, by Robert Sanders. Another excellent textbook. Audio files are available online. Excerpt.
The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy, by John DeFrancis. Essential reading. This book will inoculate you against the absolute nonsense that many people — including all too many teachers — believe about Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma, by William C. Hannas. A wide-ranging, detailed book that discusses some of the drawbacks of the continued use of Chinese characters. Excerpt.
Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, by Li and Thompson. Good for the linguistically inclined. Just about the only Chinese characters in this book are on the cover, which, yes, I consider to be a good thing.
Wenlin software for learning Chinese, version 4. I use this on a daily basis. This incorporates both dictionaries listed above.
Beyond This List

Here are some things not listed above, in most cases because Amazon doesn’t stock them.

  • Pinyin Riji Duanwen, by Zhang Liqing. A book of largely autobiographical short stories, written entirely in Hanyu Pinyin (except for one brief letter in English). For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. At just US$5, plus shipping, this is the least expensive work on this list. The complete text is also available for free online, though a URL just doesn’t have that same Christmas feeling as a physical book, does it?
  • Any or all of the three volumes in Y.R. Chao’s Sayable Chinese series. For intermediate and advanced learners — and for native speakers of Mandarin as well. Note: These books are in Chinese characters and Gwoyeu Romatzyh, not Hanyu Pinyin, so for most people the learning curve is steeper than for reading something in Hanyu Pinyin. With some notes in English. Excerpt (Gwoyeu Romatzyh column only).
  • Other works on my recommended readings list, which may be available at Amazon but which may or may not fit well on a list for Mandarin learners.
  • KEY5 2011 Multimedia — a different sort of software than Wenlin but one that offers excellent Pinyin support.

Attitudes in Hong Kong toward Mandarin: survey

Mandarin is less well loved in Hong Kong than most other “icons” of China, according to the results of a survey there.

Although the percentage of those who described themselves as “averse” (kàngjù) to Mandarin is quite small (in the single digits), it has quadrupled since 2006 (1.8% to 7.3%). (I’m using the English and Mandarin terms given in the source material.)

Meanwhile, the percentage of those who are “affectionate” (qīnqiè) toward Mandarin has dropped, though not to an all-time low. And the percentage of those who are “proud” (zìháo) of Mandarin is also down, though it remains much higher than it was in 1994 when the survey began.

Affection toward, pride in, and averseness to Mandarin in Hong Kong, 1994-2010
graph showing affection toward Mandarin in the 27-35% range, pride in Mandarin rising from 19% to 34% percent but dropping since 2006, and aversion to Mandarin at around 3% until the climb to about 8% in 2010

Interestingly, averseness to Mandarin has been growing, while averseness to most other mainland icons has been dropping.

In the graphs below I have omitted some surveyed icons — Hong Kong’s regional flag/emblem, the night view of Victoria Harbor, the Legislative Council building, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Building, and the Bank of China Building — to keep the graphs from getting too busy looking and because those are within Hong Kong itself.

The lines for Mandarin are in dark red. Click to enlarge the images to a useful size.

Percentage of respondents feeling “averse to” Mandarin (“Putonghua”) and other Chinese icons

Percentage of respondents feeling “affectionate towards” Mandarin (“Putonghua”) and other Chinese icons

Percentage of respondents feeling “proud of” Mandarin (“Putonghua”) and other Chinese icons

But even though Mandarin hasn’t gained much affection recently from the people of Hong Kong, it’s still far more liked than the least popular of the PRC’s institutions: the police (gōng’ān).

sources and further reading:

Not the same sound

Today’s New York Times exhibits one of my pet peeves. (Yes, I do seem to have a lot of those.)

This particular one is the practice of declaring that some Mandarin word or expression has “the same sound” as something else — even though it doesn’t. Claiming that the Mandarin words for death and four sound identical is a frequent example of this.

So today we have this:

Consider Tide detergent, Taizi, whose Chinese characters literally mean “gets rid of dirt.” (Characters are important: the same sound written differently could mean “too purple.”)

Nope. The Mandarin name for Tide detergent is Tàizì. On the other hand, “too purple” would be “tài z?,” which is close but not the same.

Tàizì ? tài z?

So, the answer to the question “When is a homophone not a homophone?” is “When it’s not a @#$%! homophone.”

But I will give the Times points for not mentioning wax tadpoles.

source: Picking Brand Names in China Is a Business Itself, New York Times, November 11, 2011

New row about old foolishness

It appears that few things are harder to get rid of than a Taipei City Government official’s bad idea.

Four years ago I noted that city hall was sponsoring a “festival” for beef noodle soup and promoting it to foreigners through a machine-translated Chinglish Web site and the absurd use of the supposedly English “Newrow Mian” for niúròumiàn (???/???).

The city has continued to host the annual event. This year, the city appears to have moved to solve its Chinglish problem by simply failing to provide English translations — though one wonders just where the “international” part comes in without much of anything in English. Thus, useful English is lacking; but fake English like “Newrow Mian” remains.

image of logo that reads '2011 Taipei International New row Mian Festival'

This has come to the attention of the media. For example, see this video report: Niúròumiàn = New Row Mian? Shì-f? zhíyì r?yì.

Táib?i Shìzhèngf? j?bàn niúròumiàn jié, xiànzài yào tu? w?ng guójì, buguò què y?u y?nji?n mínzhòng f?xiàn, huódòng h?ibào, b? Zh?ngwén “niúròumiàn” zhíji? y?n yìchéng Y?ngwén de “New Row Mian,” bùsh?o guówài l?kè kànle d?u t?nyán, wánquán bù d?ng shénme yìsi, zhìyí shì-f? shìbushì Y?ngwén f?nyì yòu ch?b?o, buguò shì-f? chéngq?ng, shu?shì wèile xu?nchuán “niúròumiàn” de Zh?ngwén niànf?, ràng t? xiàng shòus?, p?sà y?yàng, ràng quánshìjiè d?u zh?ozhe yuánwén niàn.

According to the brief write-up above, some people had noticed that foreigners had no idea what this “new row mian” was or even how to say it, so the municipal authorities explained that this is for the sake of publicizing the Chinese pronunciation of niúròumiàn. City authorities dream that English will take on “new row mian” as a loan term, just like sushi and pizza. (Apparently it’s important to convey to the world the Chinese-ness (with Taiwanese characteristics) of this dish, so “beef noodle soup” — which is what just about everyone in Taiwan calls this when speaking in English — just won’t do.)


Really, this isn’t that difficult. If you want to use the roman alphabet to write a Mandarin term, use Hanyu Pinyin. Although Pinyin will not be helpful in all situations to people who know nothing about the system, neither will anything else. But Hanyu Pinyin stands the best chance of working because it’s the international system for writing Mandarin in romanization. It’s also Taiwan’s official system for writing Mandarin in romanization. And it’s even the Taipei City Government’s official system for writing Mandarin in romanization, which means the city is supposed to use it rather than employing ad hoc bullshit year after year.

Anyway, the festival doesn’t start until November 17, so if you have ever wanted to “beef the world” — and who hasn’t? — now’s the time. (That this is being run by an ad agemcy agency that somehow missed getting its own name right, however, doesn’t inspire confidence.)

If anyone would like to let the city know your thoughts about this, the contact person is Ms. Yè, who can be reached at 1999 ext. 6507, or at 02-2599-2875 ext. 214 or 220. Tell them this concerns the Táib?i Guójì Niúròumiàn Jié.

Further reading:

And for still more reading, see the Taipei City Government’s massive PDF (157 MB!) for the 2008 event. This has lots of English (and Japanese!), which appears not to have been machine translated; but some parts could certaintly use improvement, such as “The regretful beef noodles have been staying in my memory.” Additionally, the romanization system employed is Tongyong Pinyin, rather than Taipei’s official Hanyu Pinyin (e.g., “Rih Pin Shan Si Dao Siao Mian” instead of “Rì P?n Sh?nx? d?oxi?omiàn” and “HONG SHIH FU SIN JHUAN” instead of Hóng Sh?fu X?n Zhuàn).

Of course, it’s not consistent even in its incorrect use of Tongyong. It also contains broken bastardized Wade-Giles (e.g., the “Kuan Tu” MRT station instead of “Guandu”) and the city’s “new row” whenever it gets the chance (e.g., HUANG ZAN NEWROW MIAN FANG instead of Huáng Zàn Niúròumiàn Fáng / ??????).

Later, all of the stores’ addresses are given in Tongyong Pinyin (e.g., Chongcing, Mincyuan, Jhihnan, Mujha, Singlong, Jhongsiao).

Zhou Youguang on NPR

Louisa Lim had a story on National Public Radio yesterday about Zhou Youguang (??? / Zh?u Y?ugu?ng), who’s often referred to as the father of Pinyin.

Most stories in the mass media about him focus on just two things, which might be summarized as “pinyin” and “wow, he’s really old.” This story, however, draws welcome notice to some some other things about him, as the title reveals: At 105, Chinese Linguist Now A Government Critic. (There’s a link to the audio version near the top of the page. Zhou can be heard in the background speaking Mandarin — though his English is excellent.)

The article also provides a link to his blog: B?isuì xuérén Zh?u Y?ugu?ng de bó kè (??????????).

Further reading:

Hat tip to John Rohsenow.

photo of Zhou Youguang signing a book for me

Now on Pinyin.info: Weishenme Zhongwen zheme TM nan?

Earlier this year a Mandarin translation of David Moser’s classic essay Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard appeared on the Web. And then it disappeared. With the permission of both the translator and the original author, I’m placing this work back online.

It’s available here in two versions:


Maybe I’ll make a Pinyin version too one of these years.

Google Translate’s Pinyin converter: now with apostrophes

Google has taken another major step toward making Google Translate‘s Pinyin converter decent. Finally, apostrophes.

Not long ago “阿爾巴尼亞然而仁愛蓮藕普洱茶” would have yielded “Āěrbāníyǎ ránér rénài liánǒu pǔěr chá.” But now Google produces the correct “Ā’ěrbāníyǎ rán’ér rén’ài lián’ǒu pǔ’ěr chá.” (Well, one could debate whether that last one should be pǔ’ěr chá, pǔ’ěrchá, Pǔ’ěr chá, Pǔ’ěr Chá, or Pǔ’ěrchá. But the apostrophe is undoubtedly correct regardless.)

Also, the -men suffix is now solid with words (e.g., 朋友們 –> péngyoumen and 孩子們 –> háizimen). This is a small thing but nonetheless welcome.

The most significant remaining fundamental problem is the capitalization and parsing of proper nouns.

And numbers are still wrong, with everything being written separately. For example, “七千九百四十三萬五千六百五十八” should be rendered as “qīqiān jiǔbǎi sìshísān wàn wǔqiān liùbǎi wǔshíbā.” But Google is still giving this as “qī qiān jiǔ bǎi sì shí sān wàn wǔ qiān liù bǎi wǔ shí bā.”

On the other hand, Google is starting to deal with “le”, with it being appended to verbs. This is a relatively tricky thing to get right, so I’m not surprised Google doesn’t have the details down yet.

So there’s still a lot of work to be done. But at least progress is being made in areas of fundamental importance. I’m heartened by the progress.

Related posts:

The current state:
screen shot of what Google Translate's Pinyin converter produces as of late September 2011